Opinion: Don’t repeat voting-system mistakes of Ga.’s past

Members of Georgia’s Secure, Accessible and Fair Elections (SAFE) Commission met this summer to evaluate the various options for replacing the state’s current voting machines.

The public is weighing in, and some have advocated for a switch back to a strictly paper-only voting system, as in a system where the voter doesn’t use any sort of voting machine to actually cast their vote, just a pen and a paper ballot that is later counted on a computerized scanning machine. That would be a mistake.

As the SAFE Commission proceeds, it must not forget Georgia’s history of voter fraud with paper ballots and the reasons why Georgia adopted its current system in the first place. I was Georgia’s Secretary of State when we made the switch in 2002, so I can provide a little context for our current election landscape and why that decision was made.

Following the 2000 presidential election, when the nation’s attention was focused for one of the first times on election security, and particularly on voting accuracy in our neighboring state of Florida, I commissioned a study to find out what had happened in Georgia that year. Much to our surprise, we found out that Georgia had a horrendous record of voting issues.

In total, we documented the loss of more than 90,000 votes during the 2000 presidential election, which was worse than Florida’s results, but Georgia was not a swing state, so the media did not focus as much on us. We found over-voting (selecting too many candidates), under-voting (selecting too few), and unreadable ballots. These three problems go hand-in-hand with paper-only voting and underscore why Georgia moved away from it in 2002.

In Georgia, under-voting was one of the most serious problems in the 2000 presidential election. It was estimated that almost 100,000 voters in Georgia cast ballots in the 2000 November election but oddly did not record a vote for president. This means that 100,000 Georgians either consciously did not vote for president, made some sort of mistake that voided their ballots unknowingly, or cast their votes properly but for whatever reason did not have their votes counted. Voters have every right to choose not to vote in a specific race on a ballot, but paper-only voting does not ensure that those under-votes are purposeful and not mistakes.

Paper ballots are also too often ambiguous and, thus, thrown out or worse, interpreted incorrectly. Some of the common mistakes we saw that resulted in lost votes, often in large quantities, were: using the wrong type of pen or pencil on optical scan systems, mis-marking a bubble with an X, and circling a candidate’s name rather than filling in a bubble. I worked with some great people who did their best to determine voter intent in these situations, but at the end of the day it should not have to come to that. There shouldn’t be any uncertainty when a voter completes their ballot that it will be counted for the candidates they want. With paper-only voting, that uncertainty exists.

Everyone should take threats of a cyber-intrusion into our elections systems seriously, and as a former Secretary of State, I take that threat more seriously than most. All I am suggesting is that when we are preparing to fight a cyber-intrusion, let us not throw the baby out with the bath water. Let us not forget all the lessons that we learned from the 2000 election cycle and all those lost votes.

There has never been a cyber-intrusion that resulted in lost or changed votes, and it is highly unlikely that it ever could happen so long as our voting machines are not connected to the internet. What there have been are countless examples of votes being lost because paper-only voting could not accurately capture the voters’ intent.

While paper-only voting might sound secure and provide some comfort that we are not subject to hacking, those who propose paper-only voting are not considering the proven ways voters in this state have lost their votes with paper-only voting. From ballots that were double-marked during hand-counting so that votes would not be counted, to paper ballots that disappeared from locked vaults overnight before recounts, to ballot boxes that were found at the bottom of lakes in the days after an election, to voters who were paid for their votes at election time – Georgia has a rich and tawdry history of creative fraud when it comes to paper ballots. The ease of errors on paper ballots, as well as the mischief that can occur – and has – after the polls close with millions of pieces of paper, are proven parts of why we left this form of voting in Georgia’s past.

The overarching mandate for elections officials is to ensure that we accurately count our citizens’ votes for the candidates of their choice. It is a simple goal made much harder by paper-only voting.

Cathy Cox served as Georgia’s Secretary of State from 1999 until 2007, and is currently the Dean of Mercer University’s School of Law in Macon, Georgia.

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